“I called it the nine-headed beast…” – George Miller, on presiding over the 2016 Cannes Film Festival Jury which comprised Valeria Golino, Kirsten Dunst, Arnaud Despleschin, László Nemes, Katayoon Shahabi, Donald Sutherland, and Mads Mikkelsen
Summing up last year’s Cannes (my first time as press at the Festival), I quoted the Un Certain Regard Jury president Isabella Rossellini’s comment that the experience of the festival felt like taking “a flight over our planet” that “any anthropologist” would envy. Rossellini’s description holds good for this year, too, since the global scope of Cannes remains one of its principal attractions, subverting the knee-jerk kvetching about diversity that’s now pretty much de rigueur at any cultural event.
While Cannes 2016 boasted its share of duds and disappointments (including Sean Penn’s thoroughly face-Palmed The Last Face), the overall feeling was that that the festival offered one of the strongest line-ups of recent years. (“Ah, but think of last year!” one nostalgically-inclined critic said to me on the final day. “Mountains May Depart! Our Little Sister! Son of Saul! Carol! Now, those were good movies!”) In no particular order, my own favourites of this year’s festival were as follows: Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s quietly searing doc Hissein Habre: A Chadian Tragedy, Jim Jarmusch’s perfectly pitched poem of a movie Paterson, Alain Guiraudie’s superbly confounding Staying Vertical, Hirokazu Kore-eda beautifully tender After The Storm, Spielberg’s supremely loveable The BFG, Park Chan-wook’s dazzling The Handmaiden, Pablo Larrain’s stylish, surprising Neruda, Kleber Mendonça Filho’s exhilarating Aquarius, and Juho Kuosmanen’s delightful The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, with a bonus point to Jeff Nichols’ flawed but admirably low-key Loving.
These films spanned so many countries and cultures perspectives and languages (including Gobblefunk, yeah) that they sum up, collectively, what remains so great about Cannes: it’s reminder that film is an international medium, a fact that can be too easily forgotten due to continued US dominance of the marketplace. As Bilge Ebiri noted at The Village Voice: “It’s touching to see such hubbub over things like three-hour Romanian art films, and to see a new Alain Guiraudie movie on the massive screen of the Grand Theatre Lumiere.”
That being said, the uneasy sense that far too many of the Competition films this year were by established Cannes pet auteurs, guaranteed a place at the festival regardless of quality, was reflected in the decisions of the George Miller-headed Jury, with the Palme d’or going to Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, the Grand Prix to Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only The End of the World and the Jury Prize to Andrea Arnold’s American Honey. Mediocre or muddled efforts all, the award of the top prize to Loach looked particularly like a politically rather than an artistically motivated choice: a privileged Jury demonstrating their sympathy with “the poor”. Strong to start (as a black comedy about bureaucracy) but let down by its sentimental and schematic second half Loach’s movie may have its heart in the right place but it’s far from the director’s finest work. (The opening salvo from Pauline Kael’s Shoah review - “Probably everyone will agree that the subject of a movie should not place it beyond criticism” - has seldom seemed more relevant. )
Still, for all its shortcomings, I’d rather see I, Daniel Blake take the Palme than Maren Ade’s bizarrely adored father/daughter “comedy” Toni Erdmann, which many thought to be a shoo-in for the top prize but that – thankfully – went away empty-handed. (In fact, Ade’s film was less favourably received at its second showing than at its first, leading a friend who also disliked it to suggest that the first press audience must have been placed under some kind of collective hypnosis before the screening.)
There were surprises in the directing and acting categories, particularly the win for Olivier Assayas (who shared the former prize with Cristian Mungiu for Graduation) for his enjoyable but divisive Personal Shopper and the Best Actress prize going Jaclyn Jose in Brillante Mendoza’s Ma Rosa rather than to Sonia Braga for her stunning display as the vibrant widow in Aquarius.
While it’s all too easy to complain about favourite films and performances getting overlooked, the fact remains that the competitive element in these events is generally a farce, and responses to the same films differ so much that it’s hard to see how the Jury ever reaches any kind of consensus. Moreover, in the case of Cannes it feels like the Jury – which Miller likened (affectionately, one hopes...) to a “nine-headed beast” - are being further compromised by their inability to award a film in more than one category.
(Meanwhile, responses to the verdict can seem as weird as the verdicts themselves. Nick James’s theory in Sight & Sound that the amount of actors on the Jury may have led to “theatre-based films” being honoured is particularly baffling given that only It’s Only the End of the World and Farhadi's The Salesman which nods at Arthur Miller, have any theatrical roots at all.)
For me, the best antidote to the Cannes hype and hustle came in the shape of the last film I saw at the festival: Kuosmanen’s The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, which was the winner of the Un Certain Regard prize. A black-and-white Finnish boxing film, that, in its gentleness and wry humour, soon establishes itself as the anti-Raging Bull the film’s focus on a fighter (Jarkko Lahti) who’s more concerned with love than the limelight made the movie feel more subversive than any of the brasher, blunter, more overtly “political” efforts presented at Cannes this year. It’s to be hoped that the Festival will continue to open up to more fresh voices and visions such as Kuosmanen’s, rather than falling back on favourite, established names, when it reaches its milestone 70th year in 2017.